The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

From Degrees to Microcredentials: Higher Education Must Evolve to Embrace the Modern Economy

A person (Aaron Brower) smiles for a headshot.

By Aaron Brower

America’s appetite for four-year, 120-credit bachelor’s degrees has been declining for well over a decade. In addition, the National Student Clearinghouse recently released a report showing that undergraduate degree completion fell yet again. Bachelor’s degree graduates declined to their lowest level since 2015-16, with Associate’s degree graduates at their lowest level in ten years.    

The same National Student Clearinghouse report showed that earning a certificate while in college was at a new high, surpassing last year, which itself set a record.  

While this pattern of decline in degree completion and increased certificate attainment was accelerated by COVID-19, research since the late 1970s has documented that people have taken nontraditional paths through college, often without completion.   

And not because undergraduate degrees aren’t worth it.


People are Turning Away from a Degree Despite its Value 

Even though the cost of college has risen faster than other expenses, a recent Pew Research Center study – and virtually all studies – show college graduates have significantly higher annual and lifetime earnings than those without degrees, with some studies showing as much as an 84% difference.  

Health, wellness, and longevity, too, are better for college graduates. There’s no disputing the value of a college degree. As the Pew study shows, those with a college degree are doing better than ever.

So why are people continuing to turn away from the traditional undergraduate degree?


“DIY-ing” Higher Education to Keep Pace  

My view is that it’s not cost; it’s that these degrees are increasingly no longer the product that best serves the marketplace. Put simply, workforce demands are changing too fast for the 4-year, 120-credit degree to keep pace.  

Instead, people have adopted a different model of their own education and training pathways and do so throughout their lives.  

This pattern – mixing and matching lifelong education and training, (essentially, “unbundling” and “rebundling” learning experiences) – is pervasive. So much so, in fact, that some authors (myself included) argue that this pattern has revolutionized education and training.  

Individuals now move in and out of formal education, combining it with certifications, badges, and other workforce training. They are “DIY-ing” into the modal model of higher education.  

High-quality microcredentials are essential to this evolved model of higher education and training, whether they are credit-bearing credentials embedded in college curricula, or noncredit, stand-alone, and recognized by industry. 

Microcredentials are more popular than ever because businesses are increasingly turning to them to upskill and reskill their workforce. Business demand is so strong that they increasingly turn to for-profit providers when they can’t find microcredentials through colleges and universities.  

This lifelong DIY model of education and training is productive for people and our nation, driven by the needs of the modern workplace, and the population’s response to remain current, active, and engaged in their work throughout their lives.   

Colleges and universities that embrace this evolution are thriving. They’re figuring out how to provide an easily-stackable curriculum that learners unbundle and rebundle towards their education and workforce training. They’re figuring out how to make it super easy for their learners to continually step in and out of engagement with their institution. And, they’re figuring out new business models that support this type of lifelong, customized engagement. 


Challenges to the Microcredentials Evolution 

The rise in microcredentials, and their increasingly central importance in the education and training of Americans, is not without its problems.  

First and foremost, not all microcredentials are of equally high quality. The need for quality standards for microcredentials is significant, and several think tanks and professional organizations have begun to set out quality standards for microcredentials. (Two examples come from the Higher Learning Commission and the Council of Chief State School Officers.)  

Second, the rise of microcredentials is also being driven by the rise in skill-based hiring. When done correctly, this is a practice that not only improves the quality of employee recruitment but can also reduce hiring biases and inequities. However, transitioning to skills-based hiring is neither simple nor cheap.  

How best to support business transition to skills-based hiring is a known issue, with several handbooks and toolkits being developed for this purpose. (Jobs for the Future has one such toolkit.) 

Lastly, transitioning to and embracing a mix-and-match, lifelong engagement model requires real money, time, and ongoing support for colleges and universities. This applies to both front-of-house program development and back-of-house business and operational systems.  

Not all institutions can afford this time and money. In response, several professional organizations, including UPCEA, have developed support services and tools to help institutions make this transition. 


Can Microcredentials Save Higher Education? 

Jim Fong, UPCEA’s chief research officer, claimed in a recent Keystone podcast that the embrace of microcredentials can save higher education.  

Fong went on to clarify that this can only happen if institutions shift their exclusive focus away from the 15 million 18-year-olds entering U.S. higher education. Instead, they should also consider the roughly 40 million who have stepped out of college with no degree and the additional 40 million who are directly seeking workforce credentials. 

Click here to listen to Jim Fong on the Keystone Higher Ed Chats podcast. 

The need for high-quality, lifelong education and training is critical to the health and vitality of our nation and its people. Whether or not microcredentials themselves will save higher education, their continual rise, and the decline in formal degree completion, should not be seen as a nail in higher education’s coffin.  

Aside from self-preservation, higher education should embrace this evolved model of lifelong learning because it’s the right thing to do. Unbundling and rebundling, mixing and matching education and training is a productive model for people and the nation. By actively supporting learners in these activities, they make those efforts better for people and the entire nation – which is, ultimately, higher education’s historic role.



Aaron Brower, Ph.D., is a Strategic Advisor with UPCEA, a Fellow of the John N. Gardner Institute for Academic Transformation, and a Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Aaron was formally a Provost, Interim Chancellor, and Senior Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs all within the University of Wisconsin System, where he was also the founding Executive Director of UW Extended Campus.

This post was originally published on the Keystone Education Group website.

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